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Digital Projects Toolkit: Yearbooks


Yearbooks: Overview

This page covers many different topics relating to yearbooks and digital projects. The topics include (click on the tabs to read more):

  • Yearbooks and digitization
  • Yearbooks and copyright
  • Yearbooks and privacy
  • Yearbooks and harmful content/ content statements
Digitizing Yearbooks

Who doesn't love an old yearbook? Yearbooks are fun and full of information. They also likely contain many images of questionable hair and clothing fashions over the years.

Can yearbooks be digitized and made available online? The fun answer: Sure! The realistic answer: It depends.

Digitizing yearbooks and making them accessible, like with other materials, does present challenges. With yearbooks, there are questions of copyright and ownership, privacy, and potentially harmful content. These topics are discussed further in this section's tabs, but here are some general rules to follow:

  • Only school yearbooks that are at least 50 years old should be digitized to respect privacy and to adhere to copyright (see the "Copyright" and "Privacy" tabs above for more information).
  • Consult with the school on your digitization project. Contacting the school (principal and/or librarian) is courteous and a good way to help build a relationship. Perhaps the school could assist in some capacity with the project (like outreach).
    • Although some yearbooks may be old enough to be in the public domain and therefore do not need permission, it is still a good idea to reach out to the school.
    • And in some cases, it may be necessary to have written permission from the school or school district.
  • If the yearbook collection will be made accessible online, provide contact information for inquiries and takedown requests.

In-House Digitization

  • You will likely want to use a flatbed scanner or book scanner.
    • Some yearbooks might be tightly bound. If this is the case, try to obtain a copy of the yearbook that can be unbound, and then scan the loose pages. Since the binding would be removed this would be a "destructive" method of digitization. It does technically damage the book/ binding (which is why you would only want to do this to an extra copy of the book), but it also makes things easier. The loose pages from an unbound book are much easier to digitize, and a flatbed scanner can be used.
    • If a "destructive" method is not possible, use an overhead book scanner for a non-destructive method of digitization.
  • For digitization standards, follow the appropriate recommendations under the "Documents" section.

Vendor Digitization

[Note: The lists of vendors are not comprehensive nor are they an endorsement for one company other another. A few companies are provided to give examples of the many that are available.]

Consult the In-House vs. Vendor page for additional information and resources relating to vendors and how to work with them. You can also consult the list below for some examples of vendors that offer yearbook digitization services.

Yearbooks & Copyright

If yearbooks are old enough (as in published enough years ago), they may be no longer protected by copyright and are in the public domain. Also, depending on the publication date and certain conditions (like if it was not published with a copyright symbol or if copyright was not renewed), the copyright may have expired. The yearbook may also still be protected by copyright. There are a lot of variables.

Copyright and yearbooks have a complex relationship, and determining copyright can be tricky at times. Yearbooks are created by schools, but they often include content contributed by students, faculty, staff, etc. A school may also have contracted with a commercial studio or photographer to take portraits. Also, yearbooks were likely published by a vendor. However, determining the copyright status of a yearbook follows a similar process to the one used for books.

For high school yearbooks, it is typically a good idea to only digitize yearbooks that are at least 50 years old to respect privacy and to avoid any potential copyright issues.

Steps to Determine Copyright

Use the resources provided here and follow these steps to determine the copyright status of a yearbook:

  1. Evaluate the item
    • Determine the date the yearbook was created or published. For yearbooks, this should be very simple.
  2. Evaluate copyright
    • Use the Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States resource from Cornell University Library to determine the category of the yearbook (consider yearbooks as published materials), conditions, and copyright term.
    • If a yearbook falls into the public domain, then it is no longer protected by copyright and it can be freely scanned and made accessible.
    • If a yearbook is still in copyright, this is when things get more difficult. You will have to find out what type of agreement the school had with contributors and vendors in order to proceed.
  3. Additional research
  4. Permissions
    • If you are not sure if a yearbook is protected by copyright or not, get permission from the owner/ creator. Have them sign a permission form or a copyright release form. The Digital Initiatives department at the ND State Library has templates available. Contact Digital Initiatives for more information.
    • Should the school be contacted? If you are working on a yearbook digitization project, it is a good idea to contact and even consult with the school. Contacting the school (principal and/or librarian) is a good way to help build a relationship. Perhaps the school could assist in some capacity with the project (like outreach). If a yearbook is still protected by copyright, you may need the school's permission to proceed with the project. If a yearbook is in the public domain, it is not legally required for you to get permission to digitize and make them available, but it is still a good idea to reach out to the school.
  5. Rights Statements
    • If the yearbooks will be made publicly accessible online, it is best practice to provide a rights statement that clearly identifies and explains the copyright status of the item.
    • Consult the Rights Statements page for more information.

Resources for Determining Copyright
Yearbooks & Privacy

All yearbooks contain names and photos. Some yearbooks may contain additional personal information (like addresses, telephone numbers, notes, physical characteristics, signatures, etc.). This is why yearbook digitization projects should be approached cautiously and well-planned. Another reason is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which designates student education records as confidential.

As mentioned previously on other tabs, only high school yearbooks that are at least 50 years old should be digitized to respect privacy and to avoid any potential copyright issues.

Here are some additional resources on privacy:

Yearbooks & Harmful Content

Yearbooks are snapshots in time. They include the activities, mindsets, and social norms of that time. However, when viewed through a modern lens, these behaviors may seem old-fashioned or even harmful.

Yearbooks, especially older volumes, may include text and/or images that depict prejudices, or content that is offensive and harmful.

It is up to you, when undergoing a yearbook digitization project, to review the volumes and flag any content that may be potentially harmful or offensive. You will then have to decide what to do:

  • Some decide to leave offensive/ harmful content accessible for understanding, study, and to inspire discussion.
  • Some decide to remove offensive/ harmful content altogether.

Come up with a plan on what to do with potentially offensive or harmful content before you start digitizing. If you plan on leaving the yearbooks unabridged and having the harmful/ offensive content accessible, it is a good idea to have a content statement to accompanying the collection.

Consult the "Content Statements" tab on the Collection Statements page for more information and resources relating to content statements. Also, consult the PDF below for examples of yearbook content statements.

Yearbooks: An "Essay" on Digitization, Copyright, Privacy, & Vendors

Is this really an essay? No, not really. But that sounds fancy. Instead, this is a detailed overview of yearbook digitization, copyright, ownership, and privacy. It is the result of some research done by Digital Initiatives after a library contacted the department with questions about a vendor's yearbook digitization services. Before reading this "essay," it may be a good idea to first consult all the tabs in the section above.

Now, let's jump down The Yearbook Rabbit Hole...


The staff of the Digital Initiatives department at the North Dakota State Library are not lawyers, nor are they copyright experts. Digital Initiatives will provide help to the best of their ability, but any information provided does not constitute legal advice.

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Many of these resources and programs are funded under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.